Spartan Race

Sunday, February 28, 2010

An ailing quack runs a new half.

You know, I don't think I've ever run an inaugural half marathon before. I've run a few inaugural 5K, maybe even a 10k, but never something as long as a half. That said, when the inaugural Columbia Half Marathon was announced about 6 months ago, I figured I had to run it. So what if it was sandwiched half way between Mercedes and Shamrock, I'm just running the halfs, so why should it matter? At least that's what I told myself at the time. And then Mrs. Running Quack caught some sort of upper respiratory tract plague, and I soon followed suit.

Most of the week, I felt like a medium sized sea urchin was slowly and erinaceously crawling over the back of my throat, every once in a while pulling out a miniature flame thrower and letting fly with thermite. I also had phenomenal fatigue and a something akin to fever and chills that had me curled up in bed for several hours on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday night, though, the echinoderm had morphed into some sort of jellyfish, oozed its way up into my sinuses, and dug in like the Maginot Line (had it not been manned by the French). When I awoke Saturday morning, my throat actually felt good, but my head was completely socked in. Coupled with the fact that it was hovering around the freezing mark, I thought about tanking the race, but talked myself in to it.

I arrived at Columbia, SC's Finley Park on a beautiful and rapidly warming late winter day. The sky was blue and there was no discernible breeze. There was also no discernible starting line - just a group of runners waiting to pick up their champion chips. I retrieved mine and threaded it on to my shoe. Not long after, a loud speaker asked us all to "move to the top of the hill". A few minutes later, somebody yelled "go" and we were off. I waited a few seconds expecting to cross over a timing chip mat, but I never did. I just arbitrarily started my gps a few paces down the hill.

I have to admit, when I saw the course on the website, I wasn't really too excited about running it. In my mind, it took a strange rout through town, and about half of it wasn't even really in town. I thought it was a bad course. I was completely wrong.

The course was effectively a big lemniscate, which will become important later. The first leg took us north into an area of town in which I had never set foot. It turned out to be a very pleasant little neighborhood with lots of old trees and unique houses. We quickly looped back in to downtown proper and looped around through the historic district, passing between the Mills House and the Hampton-Preston Mansion - two of the small handful of remaining antebellum homes in South Carolina's capital. We then took a left and headed up towards the University of South Carolina's campus.

USC is always pleasant to run through, and this was no exception. It almost made me forget that I was sick. By this time in the race, I was starting to realize something about myself. Apparently, when I run, I usually breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. My nose hadn't been an option earlier in the race, but it had opened up by mile four. The only problem was, every time I took a deep breath through it, the could air caused a searing pain. I was also starting to get what felt a lot like a dehydration-type headache. I had to remind myself to breathe through my mouth, but every few minutes I forgot and took a big gulp of air through my nose. I also had to walk through water stations because the breathing mechanics were too complicated. It was fun.

As i mentioned before, the route was basically a big figure 8- not a double loop, but you did pass right by the finish right at mile 6. In all honesty, I felt so bad by that time, that I actually stopped and walked off the course. I fully intended to tank the race, head off to my car, and go home and get in bed. I looked down at my Garmin, realized I was running at a pretty good pace, and knew I'd be mad at myself if I didn't finish. At that point, having wasted a minute or two with my internal debate, I hopped back on the course and took off again at a slower pace. In the mean time, I made a small tactical error, but more on that later.

The second half of this run takes you out of the city of Columbia, over the Congaree River, through the town of West Columbia, back across the Congaree on the Gervais Street bridge, and back up a fairly nasty hill to Finley Park. It was on this loop I realized my screw up.

I usually use a gel some time around mile 5, and then again sometime around mile 9. It's probably overkill, but it works for me. I've also figured out that the first sign of glycogen depletion for me is not feeling weak or slow, but a change in attitude about the run. I start despairing. About half way across the Taylor Street bridge, running over the Congaree, I realized that I was dropping into my low glycogen funk. I had forgotten my gel at mile six due to my mental machinations. In most of the races I've run recently, this wouldn't have been a big deal. I was closing in on 7.5 miles, and with water stops every two miles or so, I could just pop the gel and grab some liquid a few minutes later at the 8 mile station. In this race, though, the water stops were spread out to about 3.5 miles, and were sporadic at best. Not so far away from each other as to cause a danger for anyone, but extremely inconvenient for my situation. I figured I needed the sugar, so I used the gel, but it left me with a few miles to run before I had anything with which to wash it down.

The West Columbia part of the race was very pleasant. I don't know what I was expecting, but we twisted through little 1950's-looking neighborhoods, full of tree lined streets and the occasional curious on lookers, who apparently weren't aware that a half marathon was going on that day. Mile 12 hit right at the Gervais Street bridge, and and also right at the base of the only substantial hill on the course. To be frank, I had been running out of gas, and far from passing people like I had at Mercedes, I had been the passee for the last several miles. My head still hurt, as did my sinuses, and my throat was starting to get into the act. I figured I only had a mile left, though, and charged up the hill, overtaking quite a few people. A left turn and a few blocks later, I hit the finishing line, six minutes slower than my last race, but still in a respectable time for me.

A volunteer placed a medal on my neck, and I headed for the post race food - which turned out to be poweraide, fruit, pastries, and oddly, a wide variety of some sort of boneless, sauce-laden chicken wings. The later looked really good to me, but another runner walked up behind me and said "Yuck, you can tell I'm not an ultrarunner, I can't eat that kind of stuff right after a race". Oddly, though Michelob Ultra was a race sponsor, there was no beer. South Carolina has some odd laws regarding alcohol, and this may have been the issue. The chicken partially made up for it, and I downed my share,though some of the sauces did burn my somewhat raw, plague-infested throat. Ah, well.

I have to say, for a first effort, I think this was a great race. The course, which I initially questioned while looking at a map, turned out to be excellent - it gave plenty to look at, took you over the river twice, and wasn't too hilly, which is a feat in Columbia. The crowd, while really small and widely dispersed along the race course, was really enthusiastic. The city of Columbia Police department did a nice job of directing traffic.

I liked this race, and I'll run it again next year. In the the spirit of constructive criticism, however, I'd like to offer some suggestions for the future. First, I may be splitting hairs, but in a race as long as a half marathon, you need timing mats at the start and finish - and for that matter, you need a discernible starting line. Second, the last half-dozen races I have run have had water stops every two miles. While, again, this may not be physiologically necessary, I think folks have come to expect it and plan on it. Third, get some local high schools bands and cheerleaders to come out. Have a contest between local charities to see who can have the best cheering section, etc. Get people involved along the route. Lastly, this is part of a series of races put on by the USRA, but neither the shirt nor the medal make any mention of it. If you are going to have a franchise of races - a la the RocknRoll Series or the 13.1 Marathon Series - flaunt it.

All in all, I was happy I ran the race. It was pleasant, even though I felt terrible, and I'll be glad to do it again next year. It was a very different route from Columbia's other two half marathons - the Governor's Cup and the Palmetto Half Marathon ( , also new this year), and I think safely avoided the same race-different name issue. At the end of the day, I may have been ailing, but I'll still finished in the top third, which makes this quack happy. Mu

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